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September 2008

Out Today: The Graveyard Book

Graveyard Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book was officially released in the U.S. today. I've been slowly reading this book--intended for middle-grade readers--over the last couple of weeks, savoring Bod's adventures one chapter at a time. (It's like my own personal serial!) I'm completely charmed by the story of the little boy named Nobody ("Bod") who is raised in the graveyard by a cadre of the long-dead and intermittent human interlopers--and by the mischief he gets into with ghouls and witches and other kids whenever he strays from his usual play among the headstones. (It's a bit like The Jungle Book except with a graveyard cast that's reminiscent of Under Milkwood or Spoon River Anthology.) 

Gaiman was inspired to write the book when his son (who is now in his twenties) was two years old, and they played together in the graveyard near their house, reading the headstones. The beginning is a pretty scary, something Gaiman acknowledges in this video:

To commemorate the release today, Gaiman posted this widget on his blog, Exclusively Neil. Press play to hear him reading the first chapter on the audiobook.

He also announced yesterday that the latest incarnation of Mouse Circus, Gaiman's official website for young readers, is now live with many extras, including this Graveyard Book Sudoku game

Gaiman is touring the U.S. now. If you want to read more about the book, it's been widely reviewed over the past couple of months. One of my favorite takes on the story was from Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8:   

"The Graveyard Book has this strong, strange, wonderful metaphor about kids growing up, learning about the wider world, and exploring beyond the safe boundaries of their homes. There's so much you can read into this book. I mean, aren’t all adults just ghosts to kids anyway?"

After watching my 1-1/2 year-old son interact with his friends during his first days of pre-school last week, his parents quickly forgotten, I'm starting to get a sense that she's right. --Heidi

Nobel to US: Drop Dead

Looks like you can use those SAS frequent flyer miles for something else, Philip. All award nerds and bored literary columnists can thank Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the literature jury for the Nobel Prize, for stirring things up today with his comments that Americans aren't qualified for the big prize they haven't won since 1993:

Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States.... The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.

I had come to understand that no American (especially Roth) was getting the prize until Bush was out of office, but it looks like things may go deeper than that, and we in the provinces (where, admittedly, we could read a little more translated literature) will have to watch from the sidelines while Europe gives itself another one of those gold medals with the picture of the dynamite tycoon on it. David Remnick of the New Yorker gets the best response in the AP article: "And if he looked harder at the American scene that he dwells on, he would see the vitality in the generation of Roth, Updike, and DeLillo, as well as in many younger writers, some of them sons and daughters of immigrants writing in their adopted English. None of these poor souls, old or young, seem ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola." Speaking of insular, it's worth noting that of the eight books by Americans in our editors' top 10 last year, three are by first-generation immigrants and one by the son of immigrants.

Does his contempt extend to Canadians? I've been holding out for Alice Munro for some time now, but it's true that her work shows no influence of the work of Michel Houellebecq, so she may be ineligible. --Tom

Alex Irvine and the Vertigo Encyclopedia

The Vertigo Encyclopedia by Alex Irvine is one of the sharpest-looking books to appear on my doorstep recently. A copiously illustrated full-color coffee table extravaganza, the encyclopedia covers the famous Vertigo comics line from 100 Bullets to Young Liars. Modestly priced for the value, the book includes an introduction by Neil Gaiman, multi-page spreads on the most popular series (including Constantine, The Sandman, and Fables), and features an original cover by one of my favorite artists, Dave McKean.

Readers may be familiar with Alex Irvine as the author of several excellent novels, including A Scattering of Jade, The Narrows, and One King, One Soldier (all of which you should pick up if you haven't already). I interviewed him recently about The Vertigo Encyclopedia to get his behind-the-scenes take on both the book and Vertigo's importance to the comics field.


Continue reading "Alex Irvine and the Vertigo Encyclopedia" »

The Books of the States: New York (31 Electoral Votes)

J.D. Salinger Quarter As the resident former New Yorker on the Books Editorial team (I was born and raised in Madison County--the geographical center of New York State, attended a SUNY school on the shores of Lake Ontario, and spent my graduate school years in Manhattan's Morningside Heights) I was enlisted with today's impossible assignment: assembling the 31 Books of New York for our State by State Project. Based on the state's electoral votes 31 titles seems generous, but I've signed up for a Sisyphean task (swapping in a giant apple for a boulder) trying to winnow a list of even 31 for a state that hundreds upon hundreds of writers call home.

I tried to take a cue from New York magazine's 40th anniversary canon: the book had to be "unmistakably New Yorky." They had the benefit of limiting their picks to the past 40 years, though, while we're looking at everything from Washington Square to Lush Life (both among my honorable mentions). Certain books immediately sprang to mind--Bright Lights, Big City, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Catcher in the Rye (that's the camera shy Salinger's Catcher in the Rye author photo, later removed from future printings, gracing our authorial state quarter today--what I wouldn't give for a Jerome David Salinger coin to carry around in my pocket!)--and within 10 minutes I had a longlist of over 100 books. And as for "unmistakably New Yorky," it was painful for me to leave Don DeLillo's panoramic Underworld, with its "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" prologue (and it's iconic cover, which took on new meaning after 9/11), on the bench (let alone Great Jones Street). I'll admit it's a pretty NYC-centric lineup, but I tried to represent upstate and beyond the boroughs as best I could. Here it is... one man's books of New York.

Continue reading "The Books of the States: New York (31 Electoral Votes)" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers


New York Times

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Jill Abramson on The War Within by Bob Woodward: "Woodward’s evolving consciousness furnishes the true drama of these books. There is damning material in all four volumes, but in the first two, Woodward was unable or unwilling to fully acknowledge this. As the war turned sour and Bush’s flaws overwhelmed his strengths, Woodward began to reassess both Bush and his own earlier views. He ends by providing readers not just the material to draw their own judgments but a harsh judgment of Bush himself. In so doing, he has stepped much closer to the role of ­biographer, not just ­stenographer."
  • Maslin on The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder: "Mr. Buffett made a smart choice when he chose Alice Schroeder as his Boswell. Yes, he found an appreciative biographer with whom he seems to have a warm rapport. But he also found a writer able to keep pace with the wild swerves in the Buffett story and the intricacies of Mr. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway business empire. Ms. Schroeder is as insightful about her subject’s precise anticipation of current financial crises as she is about his quirky personal story. And she is a clear explicator of fiscal issues. This sprawling, colorful biography will mesmerize anyone interested in who Mr. Buffett is or how he got that way."
  • Rachel Donadio on Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg: "Greenberg’s refusal — or inability — to think positively, or reductively, is one of his best qualities. What sets 'Hurry Down Sunshine' apart from the great horde of mediocre memoirs, with their sitcom emotions and too neatly resolved fights and reconciliations, is Greenberg’s frank pessimism, dark humor and fundamental incapacity to make sense of his daughter’s ordeal, let alone to derive an uplifting moral from it."

Washington Post:

  • Elizabeth Hand on The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman: "Allegra Goodman alludes to a number of children's classics in The Other Side of the Island, including Bridge to Terabithia , The Wizard of Oz and The Secret Garden. It's a risky ploy, inviting comparison to beloved books. But in Goodman's case, it pays off, as this gripping, beautifully written novel may one day join their ranks. A dystopian page-turner, The Other Side of the Island evokes other YA favorites -- in particular, Lois Lowry's The Giver-- books that use well-worn tropes of science fiction and coming-of-age tales to confront adult issues such as authoritarian governments and global warming."
  • Jonathan Yardley on American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-Making, and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum: "The crime and its aftermath make for a compelling story, but you'd scarcely know that from this dreadful book, a thoroughgoing dud from first page to last.... What he's written (and written badly...) is a piece of hack journalism that attempts to fabricate connections between three interesting men of the day but almost entirely fails to do so. My own hunch is that Blum thinks he's written a nonfiction variation on the themes played in E.L. Doctorow's celebrated novel Ragtime, but such magic as Doctorow managed to extract from the same point in American history is utterly absent in this contrived, plodding, self-infatuated 'tome.'"

Los Angeles Times:

  • Erin Aubry Kaplan on Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough: "Tough's book is about the magnitude of the task undertaken by one man and his staff of acolytes, but Tough is more interested in what that monumental task reveals about the rest of us. He lauds Canada's efforts to give poor black children the opportunity he deeply believes they deserve, but he also questions why society as a whole seems not to share Canada's view. One thing Tough puts in stark relief is the fact that the goal of equality in education has been replaced with exhortations for excellence, a nice way of saying that every community is on its own, including communities of poor black kids who need the most help and suffer the worst effects of isolation."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Books of the States: Virginia (13 electoral votes; Guest: Tony Horwitz)

Quarter_virginia_styron I've had a few inquiries about why I didn't include Edgar Allan Poe, so famously deceased in Baltimore, on my Maryland list. I had seen him already on the list for Virginia that Tony Horwitz, our guest nominator for today, had sent in, and I immediately began building fortifications for (yet another) cross-border skirmish, but further research convinced me to graciously cede his provenance to Richmond, the city of his upbringing. By the way, in the course of such researches I came to the website of the Poe Museum in Richmond, where they list, among other exhibits, a display of the various causes suggested over the years of Poe's mysterious death, including "1857 Beating," "1984 Alcohol Dehydrogenase," "1996 Rabies," and "1999 Carbon Monoxide Poisoning."

Which is entirely in keeping with Horwitz's mortuary of an essay on Virginia in State by State, which begins with an anecdote of a diorama night in his son's fourth-grade class in rural Va. that featured box after box--"a cardboard catacomb"--of death shrines to martyred Confederates, murdered Indians, famous suicides, and of course the doomed Poe himself. Horwitz writes:

When I told the teacher her students seemed morbidly inclined, she laughed and said, "At this age, kids don't care about the Declaration of Independence. All they want to know is, 'What was the body count?'" If that's so, they Virginia is a fourth-grader's paradise. Having lived in six states and toured the other four, I've never seen one so steeped in gore. Nor is there another that clings to its dark history so insistently. Hotel Colorado or Hotel Arizona I imagine as sunny, uncluttered places. Hotel Virginia, inescapably, is a charnel house.

080507603401_mzzzzzzz__2 This is a bit of a case of people-who-live-in-glass-coffins, as the history-obsessed Horwitz has picked at many of those old bones himself, in bestselling books of travel and history like Confederates in the Attic, Blue Latitudes, and, most recently, A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. And for his suggested list of Virginia books, he's chosen a list that's appropriately heavy on history, including some of the central texts of America's founding as well as more recent fictional revisions. Here are Tony Horwitz's 11 representative Virginia books:

  • The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, edited by Philip Barbour (is this the only edition, going for $1,500 on our site?): John Smith was an escape artist, a first-class egotist, and a colorful chronicler of the Jamestown settlement he helped found. His vivid dispatches about genocide against Indians and cannibalism by the English (one settler even killed and salted his pregnant wife) remind us why Pilgrim Plymouth is more celebrated by Americans than the Virginia colony that preceded it.
  • Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson: Though not as well-known as TJ's earlier work, the Declaration of Independence, this is a revealing portrait of Virginia in 1781, when the state's western boundary extended to the Mississippi and its legal punishments included "death by poison," gibbeting, pillory, and ducking for witchcraft.
  • The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary Moulton: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark became famous for their trek to the Pacific, but both were Virginians by birth and sensibility. Their journals are a thrilling window into the American frontier at the start of the 19th century.
  • The Portable Edgar Allan Poe: Though he was born in Boston and died in Baltimore, Poe spent much of his youth in Richmond and once declared, "I am a Virginian. At least I call myself one." Since Poe is best remembered for his poems and macabre short fiction, I've nominated one of the many anthologies of his work.
  • R.E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman (abridged edition): Freeman won a Pulitzer for his 1934 biography of the Southern general and icon. The son of a Confederate soldier, writing at a time when the Lost Cause was still cherished in Virginia, Freeman is overly worshipful of Lee. But he writes with a novelistic verve matched by few biographers since.
  • Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia's Ex-Slaves, edited by Charles Perdue, Thomas Barden and Robert Phillips: Who better to tell us what slavery was like than slaves themselves? During the Great Depression, interviewers working for the WPA and state writers' projects collected oral testimonies from elderly ex-slaves across the South. Those that survive from Virginia are collected in this wonderful volume, without adornment or changes to the vernacular speech as it was recorded over seventy years ago. This is a must-read for anyone who still clings to a moonlight-and-magnolia image of the Old South.
  • The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron: A Pulitzer-winner for fiction, and a book that ignited a firestorm in the '60s because it's by a white Virginian who imagines his way into the mind of America's most renowned slave rebel. Controversy aside, this is a classic of Southern writing--Styron at his ripe, earthy best.
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard: Yet another Pulitzer for this meditative account of a year rambling around Tinker Creek, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Lyrical, spiritual, and a masterpiece of nature writing by an author who can make muskrats riveting.
  • Growing Up, by Russell Baker: One of my favorite autobiographies, in part because Baker hails from an unsung corner of rural Virginia where I lived for many years. He gets the region and everything else just right, and writes with a modest wit that’s gone almost extinct in this era of overwrought, self-pitying memoirs. And yeah, Baker's book got a Pulitzer, too.
  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe: This book has nothing to do with Virginia, but Wolfe was raised and educated in the state and this is my favorite of his many works. It tells of the early days of the space race and America's first astronauts in prose so vivid that The Right Stuff reads better than most novels, including Wolfe's own. Worth reading just for the first 50 pages or so, a model of the "New Journalism" Wolfe pioneered.
  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones: A fifth and final Pulitzer winner and perhaps the best of the lot. Jones, an African-American novelist, recreates a part of antebellum Virginia where some blacks were slave-owners themselves. A downer, as befits its subject, but the best and most nuanced evocation I've read of slavery's toll.

Tony has left two open spots: what would you nominate for them? Matthew Sharpe's gleefully anachronistic novel, Jamestown? Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series? James Branch Cabell? Ellen Glasgow? Rita Mae Brown? Rita Dove? V.C. (the "V" is for Virginia!) Andrews's classic incest saga, Flowers in the Attic? --Tom

End-o'-the-Week Kid-Lit Roundup

In this week's roundup, we contemplate parties in our tummies, visit a new Newbery blog, and get tips on writing:

Yo Gabba Gabba board books. Thanks to some of our Amazon toy bloggers, I found out that Yo Gabba Gabba just started its second season this week! You don't need to have kids in your life to love Yo Gabba Gabba. There hasn't been a cooler kids show since the Morgan Freeman era of The Electric Company--and the second season features everyone from Biz Markie to Amy Sedaris to Hot Hot Heat. If you've never heard of it, watch this now:

So what does that all have to do with kids' books? I was wondering if there had been any YGG titles yet, and apparently there's a whole slew of sticker and coloring books and--more importantly, for our 17-month-old Silas--board books coming out in a few months, including Party in My Tummy and Welcome to Gabba Land! We'll keep you posted....

New blog: Heavy Medal. Nina Lindsay, the chair of the last Newbery commitee, and Oakland children's librarian Sharon Senser McKellar have started a new blog called Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog. They'll talk about Newbery contenders and follow this year's real--and mock--Newbery process:

The actual Newbery Committee is bound to secrecy. But their criteria and procedures are open. Using these, Sharon and I coordinate each year a Mock Newbery Discussion in Oakland CA, where adult participants who've read our posted shortlist discuss some of the best contenders of the year and vote for a medal and honor books. (This year's discussion will be Sunday, January 11, more details to come!).

In previous years, Sharon and I each had blogs to drum up suggestions for titles and discuss issues brought up by the Newbery criteria in relation to some favorites. Must a sequel stand alone? And what about the text of a "graphic" novel?

Should be a great discussion--and a good place for parents and teachers to find some good early picks and tips. (Found via Fuse #8.)

The Knife of Never Letting Go wins Guardian prize. Patrick Ness' inventive SF tale The Knife of Never Letting Go won this year's Guardian children's fiction prize:

The chair of the judges, Guardian children's books editor Julia Eccleshare, said the panel, made up of children's authors Mary Hoffman, Mal Peet and last year's winner, Jenny Valentine, had been blown away by the "breathtaking quality" of Ness's writing. "It's challenging but not bleak--an excitingly different book," she added.

Ness, 36, said he was "genuinely astonished" to win. "I think it was a super-strong shortlist," he said. "Before I Die is a huge hit, Frank is a great writer, and I'm reading Siobhan Dowd now--it's really great and I kind of thought she would win."

Don't miss some kids' takes on the award shortlist. (Found via Achockablog.)

How to write children's books. Speaking of the Guardian, they recently ran a fun How to Write series, spanning multiple genres, from the hilarious Catherine Tate on comedy to Wendy Cope talking about poetry. Children's Laureate Michael Rosen gives his thoughts on writing for kids and teens, along with some interesting meta-commentary about the genre in general:

It may sometimes seem to you that editors can only think inside specific boxes, whereas a book you liked, The Little Prince, say, defied such boxes. So you'll hear from editors, comments like: "There's no point in writing a picture book text that's longer than a couple of hundred words", "That story is too 'old' for a picture book audience", "Your story is too short" and so on. Bafflingly, if you go to the library and pick up a pile of books, you may well find some that seem to defy such boundaries. Nearly always, that's because it's a famous author who's been granted leeway to write what they want - Roald Dahl's The Minpins is an example of that. Or you've got in your hand a book produced by an independent company, a firm like Tamarind, Frances Lincoln or Barefoot Books.

(Found via Bookninja.)

Ain't no party like a Brisingr party. Readers are still debating the merits of the third and latest installment in Christopher Paolini's Inheritance series (following Eragon and Eldest), but the real question is... how much fun was your Brisingr launch party? You would be hard-pressed to top this six-hour extravaganza, with an Olympic fencing coach, readings from Dugald Steer, foam swords, and more. Foam swords!


September Carnival of Children's Literature. I have been slow to catch up on the monthly kid-lit carnivals (and blog carnivals in general), but what a worthwhile endeavor: a well-organized uber-roundup of linky wonderfulness, from all over the blogosphere. This month's carnival is hosted by Jenny's Wonderland of Books. (Found via Big A little a.)

And just a heads-up: Heidi and I will be taking some time off later this week and weekend to visit NYC--so look for YA Wednesday and the End-o'-the-Week Kid-Lit Roundup to return the following week. If you have any ideas for fun stuff to do while we're there, let us know! We already have our eyes on kid-lit exhibits at the Morgan Library and Museum and Cooper-Hewitt. (And likewise, give us tips for toddler withdrawal: this is the first time that both of us will be away from Silas for more than one night. Is a 17-month-old too young for webcam conversations?) --Paul

The Books of the States: New Hampshire (4 electoral votes)

Quarter_newhampshire_metali_2 Thought you'd see Robert Frost replace the Old Man of the Mountain to the right? Oh, by all rights you should, but I must be feeling punchy after making mostly canonical choices so far, so instead you get Grace Metalious, the "Pandora in Blue Jeans" who peeked behind the curtain of small town New England propriety in Peyton Place, and gave New Hampshire its biggest blockbuster until Dan Brown discovered the Renaissance.

Blockbusters aside, the flinty soil of New Hampshire appears to grow poets (or at least to attract transplants). Maybe it's having Frost as a model, but it would be easy to fill out the Granite State's four slots just with poets. I didn't:

  • Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays by Robert Frost: The impulse to go with one of his original collections, like North of Boston or, of course, New Hampshire, is overcome by the fact that only larger collections like this one from the Library of America are now in print.
  • Affliction by Russell Banks: The claustrophobia of family and winter. And then there's his Continental Drift, which should get half a spot in New Hampshire and half in Florida--I'm not sure there's another American book so clearly and consciously split between two states.
  • Peyton Place by Grace Metalious: "If I'm a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste."
  • Without by Donald Hall and Otherwise by Jane Kenyon: To represent NH's remarkable lineup of post-Frost poets (e.g., Charles Simic, Maxine Kumin), this pairing of Hall's poems about his wife Kenyon's death, and the collection of her work that the two of them put together in her last days.

More honorable mention: May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, Stephen Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster ("They say whenever the devil comes near Marshfield, even now, he gives it a wide berth. And he hasn't been seen in the state of New Hampshire from that day to this. I'm not talking about Massachusetts or Vermont."), and bestselling residents Dan Brown and Jodi Picoult. --Tom

P.S. Oh brother, how embarrassing: I completely left off John Irving, and it's hard to imagine a major novelist being more identified with a state than Irving is with New Hampshire. Where to begin? I've always liked Garp, but the passion among some folks in our offices for A Prayer for Owen Meany is something to behold. My apologies for the omission to wrestlers, trained bears, and abortionists everywhere.

Graphic Novel Fridays: Now Fear This!

In October 2005, writer Rick Remender and artist Tony Moore (Walking Dead) launched the Sci-Fi comic series Fear Agent, and it gained a cult following for its unabashed love of 1950s Sci-Fi/Horror storytelling.  Conceived because, as Remender claimed, “science fiction has lost its stones,” Fear Agent reads like the anti-Star Trek.  Series protagonist Heath Huston is a booze-swilling, jet-pack wearing bounty hunter, more worried about staying alive than observing Intergalatic Trade regulations.  Huston has died no less than two times, been cloned, traveled forward and backward in time, saved Earth, doomed Earth, bedded aliens, and shown no fear in the face of expired food rations. 

What makes Fear Agent so special, though, is its storytelling.  If read in order of publication date, Remender’s initial monster-of-the-month chapters slowly unveil a much larger picture, where past and future events intertwine and Huston’s guilt becomes more realized and justified.  If this sounds a bit heavy, never fear; Remender makes sure to inject gallows humor and effects noises like “BLAZZAMMP!” when the narrative threatens to take itself too seriously. 

In a recent letters column, Remender revealed, now that Fear Agent has reached a certain point in its story arc, that the series could be read in a sequence different from its publication, telling the same story but giving it an alternate perspective.  Remender's suggested reading order/timeline:

I'd read the series twice in publication order, but I am always up for more starship swashbuckling.  In my third, now semi-new, read, the (zero) gravity of Heath’s situation developed in a much more traditional manner.  Heath is tortured for a reason, and I finally grasped the magnitude of what he’d done and to whom.  There are at least three main alien races that are after Heath’s hide, and I could not keep them straight the first two times.  But in Remender’s new timeline, I finally understood their individual motives instead of lumping them into one enemy threat. 

Could a conventional fiction book series achieve a similar feat?  I’m sure it’s been done, but to re-read a series of five novels would be an undertaking.  Yet, the pacing and nature of the graphic novel allows for it to be done over a weekend.  And re-reading Fear Agent according to the writer’s secret plan made me appreciate it all the more.

Dark Horse Comics will release Fear Agent Volume 5: I Against I in March 2009, and it already looks full of more twists.  In the meantime, Rick Remender’s very own superhero deconstruction begins in January with Dark Horse’s The End League Vol. 1, and he hits the big time as co-writer for Marvel Comics’ Punisher War Journal, also collected in January.  Until then, BLAZZAMMP!

The Books of the States: South Carolina (8 electoral votes; Guest: Jack Hitt)

Quarter_southcarolina_powelWe have our second guest contributor today, and our first from among the State by State writers. Jack Hitt was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina--he's the author of Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route into Spain (1994), but if you're like me, you know him best as a byline and masthead presence on some of the best things going in American culture: he was a contributor to the late, lamented Lingua Franca, and is currently a contributing editor at the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and This American Life. For the latter show, he won a Peabody for his reporting from Guantanamo Bay, and he created one of my favorite and best-remembered segments, "The Super," the infectiously hilarious and bizarre tale of his apartment super in New York City, some of whose strange and unbelievable stories turn out to be frighteningly true.

Here's the opening of from his State by State essay:

When South Carolinians proposed to separate from the United States in December 1860, a state legislator named James Louis Perigru vehemently opposed the idea. As the story goes--and it's a story every South Carolinian can tell you--Perigru rose to his feet and declared that he opposed secession because "South Carolina was too small to be a sovereign nation, and too large to be an insane asylum."

And here are his inspired choices for the Palmetto State:

  • Edisto: A Novel [new edition apparently coming out in February] by Padgett Powell [the man on our quarter, with apologies to Believer illustrator Tony Millionaire]: This brilliant book's protagonist is South Carolina's Huck Finn, our Jim the Boy, our Holden Caulfield. The kid's name is Simons Manigault and Powell perfectly channels the voice of a barrier island pícaro, ranging across a rich Lowcountry landscape, encountering coastal eccentrics for a perfect read (especially amazing since Powell is a Floridian). It is the best novel featuring all things South Carolina; really, really funny; and when it first appeared, every honest SC writer ran into the nearest closet and let out a primal cry of envy.
  • South Carolina: A History by Walter Edgar. History is a contact sport in South Carolina, sort of our version of rugby, only with fewer moments of courtliness. History is usually discussed late at night, when sunny reality doesn't have much of a say, and typically includes bogus claims of ancestral participation in key events. And yet: all sides agree that there is a standard text, a solid history and a great read in Walter Edgar.
  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustava Vassa, the African by Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself. A friend gave me this book, an 18th century slave's biography and an early argument against the terrorism of slavery. Now there is a new theory that Equiano invented his whole story of African origin, and that he was actually a clever South Carolinian who knew how to market books by black authors, colonial-style (quite an achievement, if true). This argument also enrages people. As does any argument about racial history. Take Denmark Vesey (start with David Robertson's Denmark Vesey: The Buried Story of America's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It) and then dip into the debate between Edward Pearson and the revisionists. There are many more of these fights, involving Ben Tillman, the Stono Rebellion, and on up to the Orangeburg Massacre. Did I mention Ed Ball's Slaves in the Family? All of these books can cause lots of foaming at the mouth and broken noses. (See above entry about Walter Edgar.) To get a head start on the next round of fisticuffs, pre-order Katherine Charron's upcoming biography of Septima Clark, coming out next fall from UNC Press.
  • Mellowed by Time by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner. Not a written book but a collection of the old lady's pencil sketches. Charleston is now crowded with artists who pump out tediously maudlin watercolors of undulating marsh grass and stately church spires. Verner was there first, and I still love the beauty of her lines. Perhaps it's because she limned the town at a key moment: on the cusp between Charleston the place and Charleston the dream.
  • Porgy by Dubose Heyward. When I was researching a high school paper on South Carolina literary figures, my Aunt Minnie at the Charleston Library Society took me to the vault to see 19th century poet Henry Timrod's original manuscripts. His final poem had stuff on it. "Oh," said Minnie, "Timrod died of TB writing this very poem; that's part of his lung." The point is, I read Timrod and he was just awful. I thought maybe H.L. Mencken's charge about the "Sahara of the Bozart" was just, but no: The first writer to run his hands through all that makes South Carolina mesmerizing and transmute it into beauty and story was Dubose Heyward. That tradition has been carried on by Josephine Pinckney (Three O'Clock Dinner), Josephine Humphrey (Dreams of Sleep), Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina), and Pat Conroy (The Water Is Wide--still my favorite of all his great yarns).
  • The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. Oh, I know: How dare me? Not mention Charleston Receipts first? Look, I'd rather discuss the virtues of Denmark Vesey at the Carolina Yacht Club than get into a quarrel about this venerable Carolina tome. But the grand Junior League classic, written by everyone's dowager aunt (incuding mine), contains some tongue-paralyzingly bad recipes. What I love about the Lee Bros. is how they confected a book that works with all the great local ingredients (crab, grits, island tomatoes, civy bean, fish, shrimp, corn, etc.) and created dishes that are in fact fresh and new, yet manage to stay within the undefinable ethos of the Carolina culinary tradition. I did not grow up eating grits and oxtails, but you wouldn't know it if you ate at my house today.
  • Trembling of a Leaf by John Colleton (aka Robert Marks). Lame-o porn of the most pitiful soft-core variety by a guy who lived on Tradd Street. The paperback cover of this hideous book (title lifted wholesale from Somerset Maugham) shows a young buck looking down at a bosomy 1970-ish Carolina belle in a courtyard with her peignoir trashily left open (it's fiction). When I sent out an email to friends to kick me some titles, many of them just sent back a reminiscence of how Marks created, as one correspondent wrote, "a sort of southern-fried Plato's Retreat, attracting all kinds of libertine Charlestonians (hey, it was the 70's)." Marks forever captured the intimate likenesses of some Carolinians with his crotchless prose found between the (sweaty) covers of such titles as Two Nymphs Named Melissa, Between Cloris and Amy, Barefoot on Jill (that's right, on), The Delights of Anna, Enjoyment of Amy, Enticement of Cindy, and my fave: Up in Mamie's Diary. Locals are still parsing just what characters are based on actual local folk: join in the fun.
  • The Story of Sea Island Cotton by Richard Dwight Porcher and Sarah Fick. The genre of telling cultural history through a single crop ("Salt"; "Cod": "The Story of Corn") has several Carolina variants. Sea Island cotton--distinct from inland cotton--was grown in levied plots at the shore, flushed of salt ingeniously by diked fresh water creeks. Slave towns were built on remote sandbars, the remnants of which remain. But two consecutive hurricanes eventually rendered the plant extinct as well as one more southern culture, literally, gone with the wind. Also, new rice histories in South Carolina tell a similar tale. Start with The Seed from Madagascar by former SC Governor Duncan Clinch Heyward. It establishes the claim that rice came to SC by accident when a passing 17th century merchant paid for his goods with a bag of odd looking seed. That view is now challenged by new evidence establishing that highly skilled slaves possessed the agronomic experience needed to make rice the first Carolina economy: Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation by Judith Ann Carney.